Sitting down with Stephan Van Der Ploog – the new owner of the Lebanon Country Club, who sold his tech startup in August 2021 – the first thing he emphasizes is that he’s approaching his latest project from a position of humility and stewardship.

“We just feel like, for some reason, we were picked to steward (the club) so it’s around for another 100 years. And how do we make it part of the community and thriving the way it was?”

Van Der Ploog bought the Lebanon Country Club property (3375 Oak Street) in January through LebCC LLC, which is owned in turn by his Praos Capital LLC. Van Der Ploog noted that the real estate purchase does not reflect the complete structure of the sale, which he described as having three parts: the assumption of all existing debt (approximately $1.6 to $1.7 million), a deed restriction (discussed in greater detail below), and a commitment to invest a minimum of $1.5 million over the next three years.

As a 501(c)7, the club has been obligated to file annual Form 990s with the Internal Revenue Service. Those records show the organization last had a positive net income in 2011, when it posted $16,277 in retained earnings. Since then, in the decade from 2012 to 2022, the club had approximately $2 million in negative net income.

Van Der Ploog stressed his humility and said that although he’s a private and quiet person, he recognizes that in a town like Lebanon, a transaction like this is interesting – people want to know more.

He said he was speaking to LebTown to share the vision for the club and, not to mention, that the 103-year-old North Cornwall Township social club needs money and members.

And that humility? Does it come naturally given the financial situation that club has faced down over the last decade?

“Yeah, 100%,” says Van Der Ploog.

Van Der Ploog spoke to LebTown at the club in February, along with new general manager Kristie Guyer.

“When we talk about change and how things are gonna look different today and in the future, it doesn’t mean that something was bad or wrong in the past, it just means it’s going to look different,” Guyer said.

As part of the purchase process, members voted last year on whether to accept Van Der Ploog’s plan, which cleared a needed 75% approval rating, ultimately securing 83% member buy-in.

Van Der Ploog said that the outgoing board and members of a “Friends” group that financially supported the club deserve credit for the opportunity he has in front of him.

“If it was not for them, I would not have this opportunity,” he said. “We would not have this opportunity to try to turn this around.”

Those individuals showed up for the club during a hard time, and the board and volunteers need to be honored, he said.

Van Der Ploog has work to do in reversing the financial trajectory of the club, and along with Guyer, who he recruited from Hershey Country Club, he’s focused on bridging the gap between the legacy and existing community of the club “in a way where we honor the tradition of all those super passionate members that have been here, but we also attract new young members.”

Lebanon Country Club is by no means alone in confronting this kind of secular decline.

Market research company IBISWorld notes: “Golf courses and clubs have struggled to attract younger players, with many finding clubs to be too conservative and the sport too difficult to learn.” The research company also says that participation in the game of golf has declined in recent years.

It’s a problem that has Van Der Ploog’s attention, and speaking to him it’s clear that the rawness of being an entrepreneur – having skin in the game and feeling an intense level of scrutiny and accountability – is energizing to the former tech executive.

As far as investments go, just to anticipate the cynical point of view in the inevitable comments asking whether the club might be turned into the next local sub-development: The club board noted in a statement to LebTown before the purchase closed that a condition of the sale would be that the property remains a private country club.

The commitment is attached to covenants on the deed; an indefinite option for the nonprofit Lebanon Country Club to purchase back the property at 90% of appraised value upon certain conditions being met, such as changing the use from a private club or attempting to sell the property. Even converting LCC into a public course triggers the option. The option agreement remains intact as long as the nonprofit entity still exists and the conditions of the asset purchase agreement (which LebTown has not viewed) are met.

It might not be quite a “burn the boats” situation, but if failure is an option for the turnaround effort, it’s an awfully complicated one, legally speaking, to repurpose the property. Still, the challenge does not seem to deter Van Der Ploog, who says he loves the idea of capitalism.

“I think in its right context, it works, in the sense that if you have someone that has their own dollars invested, the care and attention that they pay is going to be greater than any type of nonprofit,” he said.

Van Der Ploog said he’s able to bring that deep dive into the problems at hand, and plans to run the club as a fiscally responsible business.

“Clubs make money and we should make money so we can invest into the club. And the challenge, because there had been so many years of just kind of things maybe going down because the dollars weren’t there, the club found themselves in a position where they couldn’t afford to invest. And I think at this point, because things have been kicked down the road so much, in order to attract new younger members and families, capital investments have to be made, right?”

To get that flywheel going will require an upfront capital investment, which Van Der Ploog said he’s prepared to make. He wouldn’t give an exact figure for how much he’s prepared to put into the club’s 154-acre holdings except to say it’d be in the millions – and more than he first anticipated, which was probably a million to a million and a half, he said.

He and Guyer have also already identified a couple markers for what success will look like. The most audacious of them – a recognition that would trail the actual accomplishments – would be getting recognized by Platinum Clubs of America as one of the top clubs in the world. Hershey Country Club, Country Club of York, and Lancaster Country Club have each made the list in the last couple of years. Van Der Ploog pulled a piece of corporate lingo – “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” – to describe what this north star means for the club.

“It’s not really about being on the list,” he said. “And it’s not about bragging that we’re on the list, but it’s about a measured goal that says, hey, Forbes came to Lebanon County, PA, and they’ve looked at all these courses with Congressional Country Club being number one, and we’re this number.”

Van Der Ploog said he’s not saying it’s a guarantee or a slam dunk.

“But I always believe that if you don’t start with the end in mind, then your chance of getting there is really very small.”

In terms of growth goals, Guyer said the club hopes to expand from 200 to 350 members – which even if met would still leave Lebanon Country Club at around 25% the membership size of its geographically-closest private club, Hershey Country Club, which is also open to Hershey Entertainment & Resorts guests.

Guyer said that even before they start putting shovels in the ground, members will start to see and feel a difference because of staff training and service, including new uniforms for all servers and grounds crew and an investment in better support systems.

“Everyone is eager and we’re going to invest in the training to give them the chance to do the best they can, give them the resources, the support,” said Van Der Ploog.

The club currently has 21 full-time and 9 part-time employees. Guyer said that it will add approximately 50 additional seasonal staff across the property to include turf, golf operations, recreation, and food and beverage roles.

Other relatively quick improvements will include replacing the pool fence, upgrading computer systems, and choosing a new club management software system.

For more major improvements, the club is currently consulting with Arthur Funk & Sons and a master clubhouse planner to figure out where to spend the dollars to generate the most impact – to drive growth and increase member value through an elevated experience.

The ballroom at the club is one area of focus for potential improvements. Changes could include opening up the ballroom so that the golf course is visible when you walk in, increasing the ceiling height and potentially relocating the offices currently in the third-floor space, and redoing the floors.

Other amenities being explored include a fitness area, a golf simulator or heated driving range bays, and an additional outdoor space for wedding ceremonies.

Regarding the dining area, Guyer and Van Der Ploog are considering a flip of the existing interior Pine Room, which is a more casual dining area, and the more formal Fairway Dining Room, which overlooks the front nine towards the back of the clubhouse. As consumer tastes in the club industry have trended towards informal dining, it might make sense to use the stone walls and atmospheric lighting of the Pine Room to be a more private formal dining area, and put the bar out in the new informal dining area.

“What we want to do is create more communication from inside and outside,” said Guyer. “No matter what the season is, there’s a gorgeous view outside, right? So let’s take that bar area and move it to the side of the restaurant where there’s a gorgeous view out onto the front nine and just create a conversation area there.”

Up top, the pool at Lebanon Country Club. Below, the clubhouse, first tee, and ninth green. (Will Trostel)

The search is also ongoing for a new executive chef.

Guyer said that when she ran the House Committee at Hershey Country Club, it was not that long ago that she would have members coming back with sample menus from LCC and sharing suggestions for Hershey.

“I don’t think that it’s gonna take us very long to get back to people in the community saying, I just had this awesome meal, let’s go there,” said Guyer.

There’s also a possibility of occasional evenings where the club opens itself up to the public for new potential members to experience the improvements first-hand, and hopefully get interested in joining themselves. (Those seeking more information on joining can find that on the club’s website.)

As for the pool area, plans being discussed include expanding the kitchen, redoing the bathrooms and tiling, adding more patio space, and integrating drink service. The goal would be to attract younger families and provide an environment where, when you pull onto the property, you’re able to relax and feel like you’re known and have a good experience, said Van Der Ploog.

The pool area at Lebanon Country Club. (Will Trostel)

“And it’s going to be with friends that you have within the community, and you’re going to meet new friends.”

Better design of programming efforts could be part of the improvement here, too, he said, to concentrate member interest around specific events on key dates like Fourth of July.

Van Der Ploog and Guyer are currently working to get ballpark costs for these initiatives and will consult with the master clubhouse planner on how to stage improvements in a way that makes the most impact on the club’s value proposition for members, while also being responsible with financial expenditure and minimizing disruption for existing members.

“A lot of decisions to be made, a lot of just getting our arms around all that,” he said.

Van Der Ploog said that part of his vision is making Lebanon Country Club a more active member of the civic community.

“If you belong to a country club, you’re in this realm where you have disposable income,” he said. “So it puts you in a very unique category. I’ve always had this heart towards trying to recognize what we’ve been given and what’s a great way to steward it, and I think a lot of people feel that way.”

This could take shape in the form of club-wide participation in programs like charity: water. It could also include organizing volunteer opportunities in local charitable groups.

Van Der Ploog also said that he hopes to have more local high school golf teams using Lebanon Country Club as their home course.

From a dues perspective, the goal is not to discount price, but increase value. However, Van Der Ploog said he’s not going to raise dues in 2024 and there won’t be any huge dues increase in 2025 either, with a goal of keeping any near-term dues increases in line with inflation. Longer-term, he and Guyer noted that Lebanon Country Club is below average for the region on private club dues, but the important thing for now is to make the improvements first and focus on delivering more value to members.

Van Der Ploog noted that, as owner of a for-profit club, he’d never have the guts to go ask somebody for an assessment (an additional one-time expense “assessed” to members to fund a major capital improvement).

“I look at it like I bought a business,” he said. “I need to invest in that business. We invest in that business and the money we generate from delivering good service is where we get our money to invest more in the business.”

Van Der Ploog says he’s in it for the long-haul.

“I don’t look at it that I own a golf course,” he said. He said getting the club to its next milestone birthday is his focus, and that this is really a civic endeavor.

“So 100 years from now, when I’m 80 years in the dirt, this thing is still thriving, right? Or maybe someone else is coming along to redo it again, but it’s made it another 100 years. That’s really the number one goal.”

Read More: 100 years of ‘community within a community’ at Lebanon Country Club

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Davis Shaver is the publisher of LebTown. He grew up in Lebanon and currently lives outside of Hershey, PA.


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